Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

26 Oct 2008, 13:54 p.m.

We Are The That Ones We Have Been Waiting For

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Barack Obama's campaign's momentum (or Omentum if you will) causes me as a manager to marvel at the fusion of inspiration and discipline his organization manifests. Hmm, whodathunk a community organizer would know how to organize self-sustaining political communities?! I've touched on this topic briefly, earlier this month, but it deserves close attention.

Remember, people used to think the Clinton machine was the best there was. But with the right tools, investment in time, and leadership, a networked/egalitarian group will beat a linear, top-down group. Interestingly, when Hillary Clinton wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky, she recognized the limits of his top-down model:

Another [criticism] she laid charitably to an Alinsky character trait: "One of the primary problems of the Alinsky model is that the removal of Alinsky dramatically alters its composition," she wrote. "Alinsky is a born organizer who is not easily duplicated, but, in addition to his skill, he is a man of exceptional charm."
By the way, here is where she and Obama turn onto different roads:

Her options after graduation were attending law school at Harvard or Yale, traveling to India on a Fulbright scholarship, or taking the job with Alinsky's new training institute...
Imagine if she'd gone to India! She might have turned into Sonia Gandhi!

Obama built on Howard Dean's "50-state strategy," a long-term investment that is paying off right now in national, state, and local races. But more than that, inside the Obama campaign they recursively build leadership. They recruit and train leaders to recruit and train leaders to recruit and train leaders. The revolutionary technology includes software and three-ring binders telling you how to go recursive. It would be a pyramid scheme if the leaders were just going to reap profit and scurry away when the workers weren't looking, which has happened in previous attempts at this model. But if the organization can devise compelling new goals, as compelling as replacing Bush with Obama, then it will be a force to watch even after November 4th. Can it?

Speaking of technology, I'd be interested to see a comprehensive roundup of all campaigns' use of tech in this election cycle. created a tool to let you customize the text in a video on their server, Sean Tevis used xkcd to springboard his run, and Obama '08 released an iPhone app that tells you to call swing state residents in your address book. And of course there are zillions of YouTube videos. Those are cool examples, but what were the breakthroughs and what's the new baseline for American political tech?

The Zack Exley report from inside the campaign details the risks of Obama's infrastructure investment, and what dividends it's paying. "Rather than say we have X leadership roles to fill, we're creating leadership roles for as many leaders as we have. So we have people in charge of whatever they ARE," says Patrick Frank, volunteer-turned-field organizer. (This is the Punch Bowl Czar done right!) I am amused to learn that the rules from the top include "no drama". Does empowering volunteers and staffers help them let off steam, staving off frustration, low morale, and drama in general?

A few months ago, after Obama won the primaries and caucuses he needed to become the nominee, Leonard and I watched a speech he gave to his headquarters staff [partial transcript]. (Leonard, who poured his heart into the Wesley Clark campaign last go-round, said, "So that's the speech you get if you win.") Commenters on the video say, "I wish that was my boss." But Obama doesn't just want to be that kind of leader -- he wants to make you that kind of leader.

Three years ago, the headlines made me want to "become a manager, a good one." I looked at Katrina and said, "For God's sake, we have to do better than that. And I could do better!" I wanted, and still want, to reduce the net amount of mismanagement in the world. We owe ourselves competence. But Obama's campaign has a higher aspiration yet. How will it change its people, and our expectations?

neighborhood team leader Jennifer Robinson, speaking as her seven-year-old daughter sits beside her

The last image from Exley's report is a photo of neighborhood team leader Jennifer Robinson, speaking as her seven-year-old daughter sits beside her. She stands as though swearing the oath of office. We dedicate ourselves to each other.


27 Oct 2008, 1:11 a.m.

This is fascinating.

31 Oct 2008, 7:18 a.m.

Surprise comment! Contains mushiness and a kiss for my wife! Who I will see soon!